In Defense of Spam
By Eric Goldman
The discourse level in the spam “debate” has reached a vitriolic low. The message is clear: people hate spam. But why? Why do people hate spam so much?
Don’t get me wrong—the dozens of spam emails I receive each day annoy me. But I’m not angered by the emails, and I don’t understand why so many people are.
The fact is, annoyance is a cost of living in a media-drenched society. We receive dozens or hundreds of unsolicited commercial messages each day through a variety of media, and we have found ways to tolerate these messages. We should not confuse the minor annoyances we experience due to spam with a major social crisis.
I suspect that much frustration is due to spam’s low relevancy to recipients’ interests. Without a doubt, most spam is completely untargeted to my needs. Some spam touts products I am physically incapable of using, and most spam offers products I will never want. But each day the newspaper contains hundreds of ads that are also irrelevant to me, and I’ve learned how to scan the pages. Similarly, if I unexpectedly see a TV infomercial for a product I have no interest in, I change the channel or turn off the TV.
So can’t we learn to cope with spam? The solution is simple: hit the delete key, and it’s gone. It does take time to delete spam, but be honest—does it really take that long? Personally, I spend more time sorting through my junk postal mail than through my junk email, and I’ve wasted far more time in my life watching irrelevant TV commercials than I will ever spend deleting spam. If we accept that we all waste time wading through irrelevant commercial messages in other media, is spam any more noxious?
Unwanted prurient spam is more problematic, especially if kids are checking email without proper parental supervision. But even there, sex-related ads are on billboards or in newspaper sports sections, and we’ve learned to ignore those too. Why should pornographic spam be any different?
The outcry over spam has attracted intense legislative scrutiny, and now more than ever, Congress appears poised to pass a federal anti-spam law. While not all anti-spam laws are objectionable, I oppose laws giving recipients the right to sue based on receiving spam. These laws lack any credible policy justification, and they inhibit socially beneficial speech.
While most people would scoff at the idea that any spam could be socially beneficial, its mere existence proves otherwise. People respond to spam, enough to make it profitable. For those who respond, spam is relevant and helpful. Even though spam may be irrelevant to most recipients, we should be concerned about any laws that inhibit communications that are relevant to some recipients.
Such laws prevent us from deciding for ourselves what messages are relevant and what aren’t. Personally, I’ve never ordered anything in response to a spam and I don’t intend to, but I am grateful—not angry—to receive unsolicited email that is relevant to my interests.
In a perfect world, I would receive only emails that I want. But that will never happen, and certainly the government can’t legislate us there. At the same time, I’ve found ways to cope with my irrelevancy-filled reality, so I happily accept some irrelevant communications to make sure I get all the relevant ones. While spam may annoy me, I consider it less objectionable than the government dictating the contents of my in-box.
Eric Goldman is an Assistant Professor at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, WI.